Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Princess and the Pricket: Love's Labour's Lost on the Problem of Will

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Princess and the Pricket: Love's Labour's Lost on the Problem of Will

Article excerpt

Preparing to hunt deer, the French Princess expresses the predicament that motives and satisfactions contradict each other in a split between will and pride that makes human effort self-defeating. Gentlemen pursue the paradox of "self-fashioning," which the ladies' ironies reduce to a sense of immediacy from which personality, within meaningful grace, must emerge anew, when will, at the end, is suspended.


King Ferdinand of Navarre has persuaded his three companion lords to join him in three years of study without women around, and without much food or sleep either. It does not take long for that good idea to fall apart. After the four aspiring lovers sigh aloud their stanzas of Petrarchan passion and together find out each other's treason, Berowne proclaims the new philosophy they have all been waiting for, simply to justify their male humanness:

From women's eyes this doctrine I derive:
They are the ground, the books, the academes,
From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire. (4.3.298-300) (1)

The woman's "eye" is, we understand, synecdoche for her body and symbol for her spirit. Women are the ultimate reality before whom all books are pretense. Of course, that means the beloved women, but women are to be loved because of the Sublime that they embody. Knowing them is knowing life. One (a man) sees that, in women's eyes, truth and beauty are the same.

All of this is consistent with Petrarchan-Neoplatonic stylization, providing as it does a helpful fusion of the sensual, the aesthetic, and the spiritual as an essential affirmation of life's values. And yet, the women in the play have something more specific to teach about what life is and how it works. Berowne's dark lady, Rosaline, a model, as far as she is developed, of independent spirit within the bounds of propriety, is the lady one thinks of first. The Princess of France may be less vivacious, yet she is pivotal in her control of the action and also in her expression of doctrine. Editing the Oxford edition of the play, G.R. Hibbard calls her "the play's still centre" (41), which is nice, but she is, I think, both more dynamic than that and perhaps a touch acerbic. The Princess is a tough-minded and clear-seeing leader of her entourage, observing human nature with a typically Shakespearean quality of ironic sympathy.

When the ladies are left to their own hunting party, having been denied full courtly reception by the royal vow, the nameless Princess has a curious, unnecessary exchange with a hapless forester, who gets caught in her quibbles and cannot find his way out again. In a long footnote to the old Variorum edition, H.H. Furness provides an appreciative paraphrase of the episode by Joseph Hunter, writing in 1845. Ralph Berry touches upon it in a discussion of the different attitudes toward words that characters represent (72). Otherwise, the episode has not, to my knowledge, been discussed. It runs through lines 7 to 40 in the first scene of Act 4. First, the Princess professes herself reluctant to "play the murderer" by killing beasts (line 8). The forester sets her in a position where she may "make the fairest shoot" (10). She pretends to think he means because she is the fairest lady (11-12). He explains that he doesn't (13). She pretends to think he is withdrawing the supposed compliment and laments that she is not fair (14). He protests helplessly (16). She gives him a tip for telling her the blunt truth: "Fair payment for foul words is more than due" (19). He attempts a diplomatic resolution: "Nothing but fair is that which you inherit" (20). She concludes that he is praising her, alas, because of the reward (23). Then, returning to her reluctance to murder the deer, she reflects at some length on a peculiarity of human nature: if she shoots well and kills, she will do ill (25). In a mood that is, I sense, whimsically sardonic, she suggests that she will earn credit for mercy if she fails to wound and credit for skill if she succeeds (26-27). …

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